Today Career Hack is interviewing Shanghai-based James Wemyss, who works in Finance and Cleantech in China. Let’s take a look at his story and see if we can’t draw some insights for our own international careers and ventures.

1. Please give us a rundown of your bio and background. How did you end up in China and with Pacific Millennium specifically?

I originally studied environmental science and Spanish in college.  After graduating, I spent 5 years working in Capitol Hill in Washington DC before I came to China to do my MBA.  While in Capitol Hill, I spent the final 2 years working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee focusing on Asia and China. From this experience, I became passionate about China and decided to do my MBA at Tsinghua University. The policy background in Washington DC gave me very strong research and presentation skills.  The MBA allowed me to improve my financial analysis and business soft skills for an investment analysis job with Pacific Millennium.

2. What’s it like living in Shanghai? Any unique aspects that set it apart from other Chinese / Asian cities?

Shanghai is in between Hong Kong and Beijing.  It is a fast city and it is easy to stay very busy. One is often busy from 7am to 12am either with work, networking activities, education (Chinese class), and social. From a business perspective – Shanghai is the hub for the entire YRD region  – which includes Zhejiang and Jiangsu. The amount of manufacturing and factories in this area incredible  – making it quite developed compared to other areas in China.  When you take the high speed train from Shanghai to Suzhou in Jiangsu, it is one big factory – you will not see a green field for the entire trip.  Most foreigners that are in Shanghai are either part of exporting goods made in these factories or they are trying to sell services to foreign companies operating in China (or selling to the foreigners living here).

3. Getting used to a foreign culture is an important challenge for any ex-pat, but especially important when you’re trying to succeed in the workplace. What can you tell us about Chinese culture and how it has impacted the work you’ve done so far?

I’ve studied Chinese for seven years.  It will likely take another 10 years before I can say I am fluent.  This is because of the tones and the writing of characters. Because of the long Chinese process, I still never feel completely comfortable speaking Chinese to Chinese friends.  What you learn, however, is that language is only one part of the equation. When you have something in common to speak about with your Chinese friends, it does not matter if you use fluent English or intermediate Chinese. Therefore, Chinese Culture is just as important and luckily, much easier to learn and pick up than the language.  A deep understanding of Chinese culture, music, the food, the history, and the differences within China’s large geography can help you establish strong relationships with Chinese colleagues and friends.

4. Some ex-pats might be specifically interested in China. Others could be choosing from a number of countries. What do you think are the key attractions of living and working in mainland China?

China is a commitment.  There is a difference between the China expat community and the rest of Asia.  Those in China tend to be a bit tougher due to the environment. By environment, I mean the large population, including its diverse gap between poor and rich.  Living every day in Shanghai is not relaxing, but it is never dull.  You will see luxury cars and migrant workers on every block.  If you want relaxing, choose Singapore. If you want efficient, but still want Chinese culture, Hong Kong may be better.  The problem with Hong Kong, however, is that many expats there do not come to Mainland China as often as they thought they would.  Choose China if you want to understand China and have the opportunity to travel frequently within China.

5. How important has foreign language competency (in this case Mandarin Chinese) been in the workplace, and in daily life? Can an ex-pat get by on just English in the beginning?

For work, it depends what you want to do.  I think the best analogy is thinking who the customer is.  If you are selling English classes, then you don’t need any Chinese since the buyer wants to speak in English.  If you are selling phones or computers in China, the buyer wants a representative to answer technical questions in Chinese.  If you need to do a marketing role in China, reading will be very essential to understand the market.  Socially, an expat can get by without any Chinese if he or she is in Beijing or Shanghai.  The first challenge will be getting enough to speak to the taxi driver. The second challenge will be going to a restaurant and ordering food (especially when there are no pictures on the menu).

6. Please share with us any humorous or outrageous stories from your arsenal of experience living in China.

The best stories are always the ones traveling in China’s countryside.  In my first year, I went with a Chinese friend to his hometown village – a small town of 15,000 – during the Chinese New Year. Upon my arrival, I was greeted by the village leader who then asked me if I would like to do a dancing performance in front of the entire town.  When replying to him that my dancing skills were not that good, he immediately had the town dancing instructor arrive to give me private dance classes for the remainder of the day. The next day, I danced a traditional Chinese dance in a costume in front of 5 thousand people.

7. You went through the MBA program at Tsinghua University. Is there a reason you chose Tsinghua instead of an American university? How has investing your education in an elite Asian university (instead of American) been a positive or negative career move?

Tsinghua has a joint partnership with MIT.  This played a strong role in the decision. Tsinghua’s MBA program is still not on the same league as Harvard or Stanford, but it does have some unique attributes that make it attractive. For one, if you do see yourself in China for 10 years, it is easily the best choice for an MBA, as you will be in the market immediately after graduation.  Tsinghua’s alumni associations are getting stronger and stronger.  As more alumni become successful through entrepreneurship and rising salaries, this means more opportunities to source business opportunities at alumni gatherings. Lastly, becoming an alumni of a strong university like Tsinghua gives you a community in China that can serve as a life support when you have a problem.  As an alumni, I have called Tsinghua professors a few times asking for help when trying to have success in business or life.

8. Please let the aspiring China job seekers know what they can do, and avoid doing, to get to where you are as an expat China professional.

Remember who you want to sell to when you come to China.  Are they Chinese or are they foreign? Are you selling a product or service? What skills do you have that can help sell it that a local Chinese cannot do?  These are the basic questions you need to ask yourself before trying to find a job in China.

About James Wemyss

Mr. James Wemyss is an investment professional with business interests in financial services and clean technology. He has over 10 years combined experience in fundraising for private equity, sales, government, and financial services. He is currently the President for Wokai Shanghai – a peer to peer on-line microfinance platform that helps give loans to rural Chinese in Inner Mongolia and Sichuan.

James also works full time at Pacific Millennium Investment Corporation, where he was responsible for fundraising $60 million for a financial services platform in Chongqing. He has degrees from Tsinghua University (MBA) in Beijing and Georgetown University in Washington DC.